Year after year, Alexander Wang delivers some of the most cutting-edge and coveted designs at New York Fashion Week. The can’t miss event – usually a huge production that fashion editors are willing to travel outside of Manhattan for – is a peek into the next red carpet cycle. Growing up in Latin America, Ana Maria Nieto Angel may not have imagined her path would lead her to one of the coolest brands, but two years after graduation, she finds herself working as an assistant designer at the revered brand.
For the young designer, fashion has always been a constant. Even after her family was forced to flee the violence in Colombia during her childhood, all she could think about was what she left behind: her dad and the menswear company he owned. Growing up in Chile, Nieto Angel looked forward to visiting with her father who always managed to bring up his work.
“I’ve always knew I wanted to be part of the fashion world and that is how my interest piqued,” she tells me in Spanish.
Tenacious, passionate and curious, Nieto Angel realized a fruitful career in fashion was challenging in Latin America, despite majoring in the field in college. “I wanted a challenge, and I knew to learn about this industry I had to go New York City, which is highly regarded as the fashion mecca,” she recalls.
“New York was like a monster that swallowed me up and threw me back out.”
After visiting New York City only once, she envisioned life in the Big Apple as a mirror image of what she saw in Hollywood films. She dreamed of attending Parsons School of Design – a prestigious school for designers, artists and scholars, headquartered in Greenwich Village.
“I only knew about Parsons and that’s the only college I applied to,” Nieto Angel admitted. As fate would have it, Parsons accepted her and after three months, Nieto Angel was on her way to a promising future career in fashion.
Only 19 years old and thousands of miles away from her support system, Nieto Angel had to figure out how to make it in the fast-paced, demanding, and, sometimes, tough, big city on her own. “The cultural shock I experienced was tremendous,” she explains. “I sometimes found the city too aggressive and I was so alone. New York was like a monster that swallowed me up and threw me back out.” She hadn’t yet mastered English.
But instead of giving up, she adapted. Parsons had a strict and intense reputation, but Nieto Angel took advantage of the rich resources and excellent teachers at her disposal. She dealt with sleepless nights and fierce competition with classmates that only pushed her to do better. Within three months in the city, she dominated the English language.
For her thesis, Nieto Angel created a collection of 12 looks and presentations of two pairs of shoes. “The collection was based on profound themes,” she says. “It was about the relationship we have with our unconscious and how we’re prisoners to its dominance from a biological point.” She brought the concept to life by assembling a collection that reflected the human body and its shadow. The shadow represented the unconscious, which Nieto Angel describes as “organic, raw and distorted” as separated from the “realistic, auto-efficient and independent body.”
“The collection of shoes and handbags, too, was organic but required complex engineering,” Nieto Angel explains.
Her next goal was to earn a job at a New York fashion powerhouse. She set her sights on Alexander Wang, a global brand focused on men’s and women’s apparel, bags, shoes, jewelry and accessories. She believes the shoes and accessories she put together in her collection for her thesis is what ultimately landed her the job.
Since joining Alexander Wang in 2015, Nieto Angel has built a career from intern to assistant footwear designer. She learned the ropes at the company in the middle of New York Fashion Week. The hours were long and demanding but Nieto Angel gained invaluable insight.
“You’re putting all your heart into it, so a part of me is in that shoe that someone is using.”
Company policy requires she stay hush-hush about her specific responsibilities. But she says she often sees the shoes she played a part in designing out on the street, events, or at parties. “You’re putting all your heart into it, so a part of me is in that shoe that someone is using,” Nieto Angel shares.
For Spring 2018, the shoe designers designed a collection of see-through pumps and the occasional black chunky boot. But the number of times the barely there designs – which featured both plastic and thin, asymmetrical straps – appeared on the catwalk, is a sign of what we’ll see the reigning it-girls wear. They’re exactly what you’d picture Kim Kardashian gravitating toward.
At the office, her colleagues know her for her enthusiasm and energy, which she attributes to her Latina roots. Though New York taught her to be resilient and amenable, she learned how to be honest, reliable, and loyal in Latin America. “That’s why I absorbed from so many years in Chile. They are strong people who are honest and direct and that’s what I bring to the table and that’s what they value,” Nieto Angel says.
The fast-pace allows for changes in a short window of time and little to no margin of errors during big events like NYFW. But Nieto Angel wouldn’t have it any other way. “I still have a lot to learn and that’s why I would love to reach a more senior level to be able to make decisions with greater weight,” she says.
She advises Latinas interested in fashion to be unafraid of risks. “Look for companies like Alexander Wang,” she says, “because they are the ones that will most challenge you and help you go out and make your mark in the world.”